Murano Glass: The Venetian Specialty

At a Glass-blower factory in Murano-Venice Italy
The art of heating fine sand, sodium calcium and a few minerals and rolling it into glass was invented by the ancient Phoenicians. Around about the 7th century an Italian navigator brought the process back to Venice.

By the late 1400s the glass blowers of Murano — named for the island to which they had been ordered because their ovens were a fire hazard among the wooden palaces of Venice — had established a dominance that lasted more than 600 years.

Perhaps the only thing that rivaled it was Venice's other unique product, the music of its native son Vivaldi. And then someone did to the Murano masters what they had done to the Phoenicians: Factory owner Marco Mazzega discovered one of this best-selling items had been copied and was on the market in the United States at 1/3 the price.

It was made in China under conditions nothing like those at Murano. A mere 1,300 workers make glass worthy of the Murano trademark, about the same number employed by a single factory in China, where they don't have to worry about personal safety or environmental hazards. In China, they use arsenic which pollutes the air and is not safe for the workers.

Most consumers can't tell the difference, but the Murano glass-makers say anyone who buys a fake is not just getting poor quality; they're being cheated out of a unique history of culture and pride.

"In Murano we are born near the ovens," master glass-maker Simone Cenedese told Sunday Morning correspondent Allen Pizzey. "It's a thing that comes to you like speaking and writing and walking. You become a glass worker."

It takes 15 years to become a master glass-blower. The skills of the Murano artisans were so highly prized that they were afforded special privileges — such as being allowed to wear a sword – and their daughters could marry into the Venetian aristocracy. But any glass-maker who tried to leave the island would have his hands cut off.

The punishment no longer exists, designer Laura Di Sentillana says but the sentiment does.

"There's a whole part of Murano that thinks that secrets should be kept," she said. "There are some workers who went for example to the United States and taught — and they were looked upon as traitors."

The Chinese fakes are seen as even worse, but the glass-makers also know that being copied is inevitable.

"This has been also an internal problem, people in Murano have copied one another for centuries," Di Sentilla said. "What can you do? You have to be more inventive. There's no way to protect your designs."

Cenedese is equally philosophical.

"It hurts, yes," he said, "but also it means people liked what I made. If I make something bad no one will copy it, but if it is beautiful, they will."

Fortunately for Murano there are still customers like Paul Keeler who came all the way from Toronto to shop here.

"The artistry is phenomenal, the colors are incredible," he said. "Very, very nice."

But unless you are buying here you have to look very closely, because unlike a Vivaldi concerto, when it comes to glass, only a Murano master can play the instruments that make the real thing.